Mineral exploration is the process of gathering information to assess the mineral potential of a given area by determining geologic anomalies that may lead to mineral discovery.
Drilling programs are then undertaken to provide estimates of the extent and quality of the deposit. The immediate product of exploration is the identification and geological knowledge of a defined area which may be economically feasible to extract later on.
The stages of mineral exploration
The early stages that a mineral exploration includes are:
- Gathering and analysing publicly available information on potential areas to identify areas of interest and to plan the following stages.
- Once geologically favourable areas worthy of further exploration are identified, the explorer would apply to secure the mineral rights. On Crown land in Western Australia, this is determined by many factors including ongoing native title claims by indigenous Australians through the Native Title Act.
- Reconnaissance activities to identify the presence of mineralisation and define targets for further exploration which can include:
- Prospecting and geological mapping
- Rock sampling
- Geophysical & Geochemical surveys
Once anomalies have been identified, exploration can move to advanced exploration activities to determine if there are deposits. Advanced exploration activities can include:
- Trenching: Removing the shallow overburden and then blasting a trench in the rock to gather more material for sampling.
- Drilling: Reverse Circulation Drilling produces rock chip samples that can be examined to determine the mineral concentration and depths at which mineralisation occurs.
- Sampling: The collection and testing of a representative part of the mineral deposit.
- Feasibility: A study on developing a mine can be conducted to estimate the costs of a mine, expected revenue, mine life, and environmental rehabilitation costs.
Mineral exploration outlook
The graph below shows the trend in mineral exploration expenditure in Australia. Western Australia was the largest contributor to the rise this June quarter 2017 (up 6.5%, $17.4m).
Across Australia exploration on areas of new deposits increased 32.1% ($33.0m) and expenditure on areas of existing deposits rose 31.6% ($74.1m).
Mineral Exploration Expenditures in Australia, 2009-2017.
Mineral commodity prices are a key determinant of the level of exploration activity in Western Australia. The discovery of large deposits encourages further exploration by all exploration firms attracted by the potential value of the land surrounding the original discovery.
Western Australia also makes up one-third of Australia’s land area, creating significant opportunities for those willing to explore.
Minerals in Western Australia and beyond
Exploration for gold has attracted the most money in Western Australia, followed by iron ore. The country itself is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, ilmenite, rutile, and zircon and the second largest producer of gold, lead, lithium, manganese ore, and zinc.
Encouraging mineral exploration in Australia
Australia’s mineral resources are an important component of the nation’s wealth and have a comparative advantage in the production of mineral commodities which stems from
- A rich and diverse mineral endowment
- High-quality regional-scale geoscience information
- Advanced exploration, mining, and processing technologies
- A skilled workforce
- Low population density
These factors mean that modern mining can be undertaken in line with lowered risk levels and increasing economic and environmental performance.